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A virtually franchise-free downtown, world-class cuisine, amazing crafts, live music venues and fine arts make this city tucked into the Blue Ridge mountain range one of a kind.

What we loved: Blue Spiral 1, a gallery of American art that's fresh, fun and fascinating. Where else can you find birds made from credit cards?

If Asheville were a band, it would play bluegrass, and not just because that music is indigenous to this city in western North Carolina. Like a great bluegrass band, Asheville effortlessly blends its distinctive voices -- and it rings authentic.


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Start with the city's downtown, which by design is virtually franchise-free. Visiting a city with no Gap, no Denny's and no Pottery Barn is like being in a foreign country, except that many Asheville stores focus on items that are uniquely American. You'll find unique clothing, world-class cuisine and amazing crafts; at New Morning Gallery the glass and metal vases put the flowers to shame. Says Lesley Groetsch, co-owner of the Orange Peel, a live-music venue in town: "It's almost like there's a filter. You can walk around downtown, and there are no duds." Downtown features an art deco skyline, but the real skyline is the Blue Ridge mountain range, which encircles Asheville.

The city's culture includes a strong whole-earth element. But it runs the gamut from fine arts (more than two dozen galleries and a symphony orchestra) to a surfeit of vegetarian restaurants and great ethnic cuisine. And this culture is enjoyed by, among other groups, a country-club set, a large gay-and-lesbian community, worshippers of the outdoors and retirees.


Asheville's educational options and its active lifestyle attract retirees "who want to live in a multifaceted society, not a retirement ghetto," says David Brown, a former chancellor at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, who retired to the city with his wife, Lin.

The influx of wealthy retirees, along with young professionals, is quickly driving up home prices. But you can still buy a new, or nearly new, 2,000-square-foot home near the city for $300,000 to $350,000.

-- Robert Frick